Wednesday, February 08, 2012


Fixing the Fatalism

Fun trivia fact: this is a Presidential election year.  But you wouldn’t know it from walking around campus.  

Have you seen any meaningful student political activity on your campus so far this year?  I haven’t.  (Admittedly, I don’t work in Iowa.)  

I don’t think it’s because of general contentment.  The recession is still very much in force from the perspective of people trying to get their first real job, and students have felt the effects -- I hope not too strongly, but still -- of increased tuition/fees and certain budget cuts.  Half of the students on campus get some level of Pell grant, so we’re not talking about the anesthetized affluent here.

And it doesn’t seem to be because they’re more caught up in state and/or local politics, either.  

I’ve heard talk at the national level of encouraging more student civic engagement, though most of that has been concentrated in the four-year liberal arts college sector, rather than community colleges.  And even there, the talk I’ve heard has struck me as sort of tangential to what needs to be done.  It’s fine as far as it goes, but there’s a more basic issue to address first.

For lack of a better term, I’ll call it “standing.”  It’s a sense that the larger social and political world is theirs to address.  Many of them simply don’t have it.

The faculty have seen the same thing.  One professor who teaches some wonderfully thoughtful approaches to politics and the economy reports that her students are willing to engage when she discusses problems with them, but turn fatalistic when she turns to possible solutions.  They’ve developed a sort of shrug.  

To me, that’s a much larger issue than the usual statistics about the percentage of students who know, say, how many justices are on the Supreme Court.  Yes, they should know that, but they’ll learn it when they want to know it.  The trick is getting them to want to know it.  When they have a context in which it matters, they’ll get the facts.

I just don’t know how to break through the fatalism.  Filling in the facts without fixing the fatalism (say that five times fast!) doesn’t seem likely to achieve much.  And color me skeptical that encouraging volunteerism -- as worthy as that is on its own terms -- is the same thing.  Volunteerism can achieve wonderful things, but it doesn’t leverage state power.  And if students here don’t leverage state power, others will.

In this light, the trend to try to reduce community colleges to workforce training centers strikes me as potentially undemocratic.  Training is valuable, and there are students for whom it’s a great choice.  But we also need time and space to convey to students a sense of belonging when the big social and political questions come up.  If they’re going to be citizens, they need to feel welcome in the role.

Initial forays into politics are often callow and retrospectively embarrassing.  That’s okay; it’s a stage in the maturation process.  Better to make those rookie mistakes in a relatively safe setting.  

That’s especially true when you consider the student body that community colleges tend to attract.  Bluntly, our population is much more low-income and multiracial than the student body at most four-year colleges, and particularly when compared to the elite colleges that tend to get the spotlight in national initiatives for civic engagement.  If the kids from elite backgrounds acquire a sense of political efficacy, and the kids who need Pell grants don’t, it’s easy to project future political consequences.  If we’re serious about civic engagement, this is where we need to start.  The kids at Swarthmore will be fine; the kids at the Community College of Philadelphia, I’m not entirely sure.

We had some kids occupying the main drag with signs. That's pretty ballsy in a tea-party state.

Generally we get in the news for political activism of the opposite kind... not all of our students realize they're not supposed to be overtly racist, for example. I blame Fox News.
As someone who has spent some substantial time in politics, and worked with a number of college interns (admittedly, including none from community colleges), a strong current of fatalism isn't the most irrational of responses. In fact, it seems the larger problem is a bit too much idealism; while it's definitely not the case for everybody, most interns I've worked with, and knew personally in college, seemed to emerge more jaded and cynical than when they entered. There's something to be said for the need to turn that cynicism into productive discontent, but the impulse isn't starting from a fictional place.
Possibly a side effect of teaching them math? They realize how bad of shape we are in and how little can be done about it.
Students aren't stupid. They know that "news outlets" are in reality lapdogs of the political left or right. Once the dinosaur media picked sides and thus created or ignored events that supported their own narrative, the culture of trusted journalism as we knew it ceased to exist. Fox News didn't invent this phenomenon as much as they exposed it. My students are apathetic because they seem tired of being lied to and taken as chumps in a bigger game of political BS.
You want to know why "we" don't care. Because our parents and grandparents have elected into office the same people for who knows how many years. Our lives have not gotten appreciably better because of this. The chances of getting in state level are slim and you certainly can't do with while you are young and relatively naive to the machinations of politicians. So, tell me why should I care? Nothing is going to change until my generation is in office which, if history is a barometer, won't be for another 20 years. By then my children will be just as apathetic. And they'll blame me for ruining the world.

At my SLAC, the young republicans were the only active politically group on campus. The democrats were basically silent. Which is interesting because we live in a highly democrat state and county. It burned up some of the more far left faculty that only the republicans were active on campus. (and that was 12 years ago)
Ron Paul is dominating the under-30 crowd; Intrade gives him a 2% chance of getting the Republican nomintion.

Oddly enough, he was rolling along before the Iowa caucuses. Then, a few thousand people in Iowa shook hands with Rick Santorum and voted for him, and a few thousand people New Hampshire shook hands with and voted for Mitt Romney, and those few thousand people decided who the opposition for Barack Obama will be in the election.

So, unless you live in Iowa or New Hampshire, you have no influence on who the opposition nominates this election.
They aern't active because they're overwhelmed with everything else like trying to find more than a part-time job, or a job that isn't a 90 min commute (a major problem in my CC's area), and make ends meet while going to school to supposedly make their future better--something they are doubtful of as they read about how hard it is to get a job, pay back loans etc.

And frankly the younger faculty are in so much of the same boat that it's hard to motivate the students.
I teach a basic Argumentation course. Each week, students must find and respond to an essay or opinion piece about an assigned topic. (Topics have included the PIPA/SOPA legislation and the TransCanada Pipeline.) This is an English class, so the focus needs to be on rhetorical approaches to the issue rather than causes of or solutions to the issue itself, but it is increasing students' awareness of current events. I developed this assignment last semester, when I discovered none of my students were aware of the Occupy Wall Street movements.
We elected a black guy President, and he governed to Nixon's right. You're damn right students don't feel like it's worth discussing solutions.
As a nearly-30-something professional who got his start in a community college, I have never voted. There's two branches of the big government party, and they just tinker around slightly with marginal tax rates and entitlements. The system is designed such that the big government party is basically permanently entrenched-- the bureaucrats survive regardless of electoral consequences. So, what's the point? My sincere advice to young people is that it's not worth voting, and you're going to be looted to pay for boomer entitlement programs unless you leave the country and renounce your citizenship.
Finally, I can agree with Punditus Maximus.

The trouble with Obama raising expectations so high in 2008 is that they then had so far to fall. Fatalism is the byproduct of bitter disappointment.

Once the government decided to choke off economic growth, it became hard for anyone except those who already have it made to be cheerful. Everyone in my circle believes that government statistics showing a recovery is underway are bunk.

I'm pretty fatalistic myself now, as are my adult children, just out of college.
I regularly teach courses that require giving a shit because they incorporate some element of doing something in the community. Usually about 10% of my students keep on doing stuff and giving a shit, some of them making a difference in organized politics, or NGOs, or other community organizations. Some of them are just living life more civically-minded. I have no idea why other teachers/professors don't do this more, particularly people with tenure and funded research programs (two things that I don't have) that they could ground community work or civic engagement in. Aren't we supposed to be educating people to be engaged citizens as well as how to parse a sentence, build a bridge, give a hypodermic?
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Hmmm. Just checked on the websites for Romney, Santorum, Gingrich, and Paul... none of them mention any actual plans for college students. Only Obama has actual policy that addresses college students (e.g. ideas for Pell grants, work-study, loans, and what should be on the agenda for CCs).
Well, unless you think Paul's dissolving the US Dept. of Ed would help college students.

Not sure you can blame college students for NOT getting exciting about 1) the status quo or 2) people who ignore them even more than the status quo.
It's not a bug, it's a feature!

Yes, liberal arts types may claim that "students are the future," and politicians may cry that education is too important to be left to the teachers, but the fact is that schools rely on government funding (as they perhaps should) but government leaders don't want a more truly educated citizenry; they want workers who are too dispirited to complain, too tired to organized, too poor to live in anything but the next pay cycle. If our leaders really believed in democracy, education would be fully funded.

So what are we few to do about it? I haven't a clue. I haven't given up yet, but too many have.
I'll observe that I was a student when there was a GREAT deal of "student activism", and even then it was pretty invisible on campus. The biggest effect was much later when off-campus students registered locally and got a student on the city council and another on the county commission.

The comment by Anonymous @9:56AM was interesting. My own personal experience is that you have the greatest influence on local politics, and local politics has a huge effect on quality of life. It is silly to ignore it just because it is so difficult for one person to change the national discussion about Social Security from (unearned) "entitlement" to (earned) "national fringe benefit" for working people. There are electoral consequences in local government, and low turnout makes individual action count even more.

BTW, I actually LOL'd when I read Edmund assert that short circuiting a depression and keeping it from becoming another Great one (solid analysis says 15% unemployment in 2010 and personal analysis says half the houses on my street vacant) followed by millions of private sector jobs constituted choking off economic growth!
How? I require it.

I'm a FT community college professor and an activist, and I teach a freshman seminar that consists of working to do organizing around a campaign of the students' choice. They do light research, make videos, write letters, create proposals, stick to deadlines as a group, plan events, etc etc etc.

Obviously, this isn't the structural solution--this is my fed-up response to fatalism: to require political education and political engagement, and to give them serious course-credit rewards.

We'll see how it works. So far, it's pretty cool for the 20 or so students who take this course each semester.
"Everyone in my circle believes that government statistics showing a recovery is underway are bunk."

You misspelled "black."

Yes, of course conservatives think that anything that would make Obama look like the mediocre leader he is would be falsified. He's way too black to be basically competent, but devoted to a pro-elite ideology.

Let's not mistake Obama's failure to do his job for what caused this crisis -- the reflexive hatred of "government," which, because our government defines us, really means reflexive hatred of America.
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